Social Control of Mental Illness: The Effect of Mental Health Evaluations on Sentencing

Melissa Thompson, University of Minnesota

This paper explores two competing hypotheses with respect to case outcomes for criminal defendants who are evaluated for a possible defense of mental illness or mental disorder. The first perspective uses Black's theory of law, which states that law varies inversely with other forms of social control. One such type of social control is psychiatric treatment for mental illness. Following this perspective, a criminal defendant receiving psychiatric treatment prior to sentencing should be subject to less law than a criminal defendant who is not similarly evaluated. Therefore, we would expect that defendants who are subject to psychiatric controls and evaluated for a mental illness defense would be punished less severely than those not evaluated. The competing hypothesis is that just as defendants who do not accept a plea bargain and insist on a trial tend to be punished more severely, defendants who pursue a mental illness defense will also be punished more severely than those who do not appear to waste the court's time. These competing hypotheses are tested using all felony defendants referred for a psychiatric evaluation in Hennepin County, Minnesota, between 1993 and 2001, along with a random sample of felony defendants for the same years. I control for familial, demographic, criminal and mental health history variables when assessing the effect of a mental health evaluation on (1) the decision of whether to incarcerate (the in/out decision) and (2) the length of sentence. I conclude by exploring the relationship between the mental health and criminal justice systems and how this relationship alters case outcome for criminal defendants.

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Updated 05/20/2006